|Type||Undeciphered Bronze Age writing|
|Languages||Unknown (see Harappan language)|
|Time period||2600–1900 BC|
|ISO 15924||Inds, 610|
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols.|
The term Indus script (also Harappan script) refers to short strings of symbols associated with the Indus Valley Civilization, in use during the Mature Harappan period, between the 26th and 20th centuries BC. It is not generally accepted that these symbols form a script used to record a language, and the subject remains controversial. In spite of many attempts at decipherments and claims, it is as yet undeciphered, and no underlying language has been identified. There is no known bilingual inscription.
The first publication of a Harappan seal dates to 1873, in a drawing by Alexander Cunningham. Since then, over 4,000 symbol-bearing objects have been discovered, some as far afield as Mesopotamia. In the early 1970s, Iravatham Mahadevan published a corpus and concordance of Indus writing listing about 3,700 seals and about 417 distinct signs in specific patterns. The average inscription contains five signs, and the longest inscription is only 17 signs long. He also established the direction of writing as right to left.
Some early scholars, starting with Cunningham in 1877, thought that the script was the archetype of the Brāhmī script. Cunningham's ideas were supported by G.R. Hunter, F. Raymond Allchin and a minority of scholars, who continue to argue for the Indus script as the predecessor of the Brahmic family. However, other scholars (including Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan) disagree, claiming instead that the Brahmi script derived from the Aramaic script.
Early examples of the symbol system are found in an Early Harappan context, dated to as early as the 33rd century BC in a BBC report of 1999.[unreliable source?] In the Mature Harappan period, from about 2600 BC, strings of Indus signs are most commonly found on flat, rectangular stamp seals, but they are also found on at least a dozen other materials including tools, miniature tablets, copper plates, and pottery.
After 1900 BC, the systematic use of the symbols ended, after the final stage of the Mature Harappan civilization. A few Harappan signs have been claimed to appear until as late as around 1100 BC (the beginning of the Indian Iron Age). Onshore explorations near Bet Dwarka in Gujarat revealed the presence of late Indus seals depicting a 3-headed animal, earthen vessel inscribed in what is claimed to be a late Harappan script, and a large quantity of pottery similar to Lustrous Red Ware bowl and Red Ware dishes, dish-on-stand, perforated jar and incurved bowls which are datable to the 16th century BC in Dwarka, Rangpur and Prabhas. The thermoluminescence date for the pottery in Bet Dwaraka is 1528 BC. This evidence has been used to claim that a late Harappan script was used until around 1500 BC. Other excavations in India at Vaisali, Bihar and Mayiladuthurai, Tamil Nadu have been claimed to contain Indus symbols being used as late as 1100 BC.
In May 2007, the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department found pots with arrow-head symbols during an excavation in Melaperumpallam near Poompuhar. These symbols are claimed to have a striking resemblance to seals unearthed in Mohenjo-daro in the 1920s.
In one alleged "decipherment" of the script, the Indian archeologist S. R. Rao argued that the late phase of the script represented the beginning of the alphabet. He notes a number of striking similarities in shape and form between the late Harappan characters and the Phoenician letters, arguing than the Phoenician script evolved from the Harappan script, challenging the classical theory that the first alphabet was Proto-Sinaitic.
The writing system is largely pictorial but includes many abstract signs as well. The script is thought to have been mostly written from right to left, but sometimes follows a boustrophedonic style. The number of principal signs is about 400-600, comparable to the typical sign inventory of a logo-syllabic script. The prevailing scholarly view maintains that structural analysis indicates that the language is agglutinative, like the Dravidian languages.
According to a paper by researchers doing a comprehensive analysis of Indus signs at TIFR and published in the Korean journal Scripta, it took a significant time and effort, intellect, aesthetics, detailed planning and care to design the Indus script. It was acceptable all across the civilization and combining signs or combining signs with modifiers seems to have been done at all sites.
In a 2004 article, Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel presented a number of arguments in support of their thesis that the Indus script is nonlinguistic, principal among them being the extreme brevity of the inscriptions, the existence of too many rare signs increasing over the 700-year period of the Mature Harappan civilization, and the lack of random-looking sign repetition typical for representations of actual spoken language (whether syllabic-based or letter-based), as seen, for example, in Egyptian cartouches.
Asko Parpola, reviewing the Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel thesis in 2005, states that their arguments "can be easily controverted". He cites the presence of a large number of rare signs in Chinese, and emphasizes that there is "little reason for sign repetition in short seal texts written in an early logo-syllabic script". Revisiting the question in a 2007 lecture, Parpola takes on each of the 10 main arguments of Farmer et al., presenting counterarguments for each. He states that "even short noun phrases and incomplete sentences qualify as full writing if the script uses the rebus principle to phonetize some of its signs".
A computational study conducted by a joint Indo-US team led by Rajesh P N Rao of the University of Washington, consisting of Iravatham Mahadevan and others from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, was published in April 2009 in Science. They conclude that "given the prior evidence for syntactic structure in the Indus script, (their) results increase the probability that the script represents language". Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel have disputed this finding, pointing out that Rao et al. did not actually compare the Indus signs with "real-world non-linguistic systems" but rather with "two wholly artificial systems invented by the authors". In response, Rao et al. point out that the two artificial systems "simply represent controls, necessary in any scientific investigation, to delineate the limits of what is possible." They state that real-world non-linguistic systems were indeed included in their analysis ("DNA and protein sequences, FORTRAN computer code"). Farmer et al. have also compared a non-linguistic system (medieval heraldic signs) with natural languages using Rao et al.'s method and conclude that the method cannot distinguish linguistic systems from non-linguistic ones. Rao et al. have clarified that their method is inductive, not deductive as presumed by Farmer et al., and their result, together with other known attributes of the script, increases the evidence that the script is linguistic, though it does not prove it. In a follow-up study published in IEEE Computer, Rao et al. present data which strengthen their original conditional entropy result, which involved analysis of pairs of symbols. They show that the Indus script is similar to linguistic systems in terms of block entropies, involving sequences up to 6 symbols in length.
Attempts at decipherment
Over the years, numerous decipherments have been proposed, but none has been accepted by the scientific community at large. The following factors are usually regarded as the biggest obstacles for a successful decipherment:
- The underlying language has not been identified though some 300 loanwords in the Rigveda are a good starting point for comparison.
- The average length of the inscriptions is less than five signs, the longest being only 17 signs (and a sealing of combined inscriptions of just 27 signs).
- No bilingual texts (like a Rosetta Stone) have been found.
The topic is popular among amateur researchers, and there have been various (mutually exclusive) decipherment claims. None of these suggestions has found academic recognition.
The Russian scholar Yuri Knorozov surmised that the symbols represent a logosyllabic script and suggested, based on computer analysis, an underlying agglutinative Dravidian language as the most likely candidate for the underlying language. Knorozov's suggestion was preceded by the work of Henry Heras, who suggested several readings of signs based on a proto-Dravidian assumption.
The Finnish scholar Asko Parpola led a Finnish team in the 1960s-80s that vied with Knorozov's Soviet team in investigating the script using computer analysis. Based on a proto-Dravidian assumption, they proposed readings of many signs, some agreeing with the suggested readings of Heras and Knorozov (such as equating the "fish" sign with the Dravidian word for fish "min") but disagreeing on several other readings. A comprehensive description of Parpola's work until 1994 is given in his book Deciphering the Indus Script. The discovery in Tamil Nadu of a late Neolithic (early 2nd millennium BC, i.e. post-dating Harappan decline) stone celt allegedly marked with Indus script signs has been considered by some to be significant for the Dravidian identification. However, their identification as Indus signs has been disputed.
Iravatham Mahadevan, who supports the Dravidian hypothesis, says, "we may hopefully find that the proto-Dravidian roots of the Harappan language and South Indian Dravidian languages are similar. This is a hypothesis [...] But I have no illusions that I will decipher the Indus script, nor do I have any regret."
Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao claimed to have deciphered the Indus script. Postulating uniformity of the script over the full extent of Indus-era civilization, he compared it to the Phoenician Alphabet, and assigned sound values based on this comparison. His decipherment results in an "Sanskritic" reading, including the numerals aeka, tra, chatus, panta, happta/sapta, dasa, dvadasa, sata (1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 100).
While mainstream scholarship is generally in agreement with Rao's approach of comparison, the details of his decipherment have not been accepted, and the script is still generally considered undeciphered. John E. Mitchiner, after dismissing some more fanciful attempts at decipherment, mentions that "a more soundly-based but still greatly subjective and unconvincing attempt to discern an Indo-European basis in the script has been that of Rao".
In a 2002 interview with The Hindu, Rao asserted his faith in his decipherment, saying that "Recently we have confirmed that it is definitely an Indo-Aryan language and deciphered. Prof. W. W. Grummond of Florida State University has written in his article that I have already deciphered it."
The Indus script has been assigned the ISO 15924 code "Inds". It was proposed for encoding in Unicode's Supplementary Multilingual Plane in 1999; however, the Unicode Consortium still list the proposal in pending status.
- (Possehl, 1996)
- "Write signs for Indus script?". Nature India. 2009-05-31. Retrieved 2009-06-01.
- Whitehouse, David (1999) 'Earliest writing' found BBC
- Subramaniam, T. S. (May 1, 2006). "From Indus Valley to coastal Tamil Nadu". The Hindu (Chennai, India). Retrieved 2008-05-23.
- Robinson, Andrew. Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts. 2002
- Frank Raymond Allchin; George Erdosy (1995). The archaeology of early historic South Asia: the emergence of cities and states. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-37695-2. Retrieved 21 August 2011. "A second major consideration is that nearly all the scholarly attempts to pinpoint the language of the Indus seal inscriptions agree (with one to two exceptions) that the evidence points to its being structurally ancestral to Dravidian. While it is to be expected that the seal inscriptions, if and when their reading is achieved, may be found to include loan words from Indo-Aryan and perhaps other languages, the probability remains that the underlying language structure was Dravidian."
- Indus script designed with care, say TIFR researchers, Mihika Basu, Mar 18 2012, indianexpress.com
- Indus Script: A Study of its Sign Design, Nisha Yadav1 and M. N. Vahia, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai
- (Parpola, 2005, p. 37)
- (Parpola, 2008).
- Rajesh P. N. Rao, Nisha Yadav, Mayank N. Vahia, Hrishikesh Joglekar, R. Adhikari, and Iravatham Mahadevan, Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus Script published online 23 April 2009 doi:10.1126/science.1170391 (in Science Express Brevia)
- http://www.cs.washington.edu/homes/rao/ScienceIndus.pdf A discussion of the Rao et al. paper can be found here
- A Refutation of the Claimed Refutation of the Non-linguistic Nature of Indus Symbols: Invented Data Sets in the Statistical Paper of Rao et al. (Science, 2009) Retrieved on September 19, 2009.
- Rebuttal of Sproat, Farmer, et al.’s supposed "refutation". Retrieved on June 23, 2011.
- (Rao et al., 2009)
- 'Conditional Entropy' Cannot Distinguish Linguistic from Non-linguistic Systems Retrieved on September 19, 2009.
- Entropy, the Indus Script, and Language: A Reply to R. Sproat Retrieved on June 23, 2011.
- (Rao, 2010).
- (Rao et al., 2009).
- http://www.mitpressjournals.org/toc/coli/36/4 Computational Linguistics, Volume 36, Issue 4, December 2010.
- FBJ Kuiper, Aryans in the Rigveda, Amsterdam/Atlanta 1991
- M. Witzel underlines the prefixing nature of these words and calls them Para-Munda,a language related to but not belonging to Proto-Munda; see: Witzel, M. Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Ṛgvedic, Middle and Late Vedic), EJVS Vol. 5,1, 1999, 1-67
- Longest Indus inscription
- see e.g. Egbert Richter and N. S. Rajaram for examples.
- (Knorozov 1965)
- (Heras, 1953)
- (Parpola, 1994)
- (Subramanium 2006; see also A Note on the Muruku Sign of the Indus Script in light of the Mayiladuthurai Stone Axe Discovery by I. Mahadevan (2006)
- Significance of Mayiladuthurai find
- Interview at Harrappa.com
- J.E. Mitchiner: Studies in the Indus Valley Inscriptions, p.5, with reference to S.R. Rao: Lothal and the Indus Civilisation (ch.10), Bombay 1973.
- Rao refers to a statement by W. W. De Grummond, of the Department of Classics, Florida State University, that "Dr. Rao's decipherment of the Indus script has met with considerable acceptance and will serve now as a basis for further and continuing study of the language of the ancient Indus Valley civilization", in "Linguistic Affinities of Old Indo-Aryan with Classical Greek and Latin", B.U. Nayak, N.C. Ghosh (eds.) New Trends in Indian Art and Archaeology: S.R. Rao's 70th birthday felicitation volume, Aditya Prakashan (1992), pp. 133-139. ISBN 81-85689-12-1
- Everson 1999 and 
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (November 2010)|
- Bryant, Edwin (2000), The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture : The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate Oxford University Press.
- Everson, Michael (1999-01-29). Proposal for encoding the Indus script in Plane 1 of the UCS. ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2. Retrieved 2010-08-31
- Farmer, Steve et al. (2004) The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization, EJVS, vol. 11 (2004), issue 2 (Dec)  (PDF).
- Knorozov, Yuri V. (ed.) (1965) Predvaritel’noe soobshchenie ob issledovanii protoindiyskikh textov. Moscow.
- Mahadevan, Iravatham, Murukan In the Indus Script (1999)
- Mahadevan, Iravatham, Aryan or Dravidian or Neither? A Study of Recent Attempts to Decipher the Indus Script (1995–2000) EJVS (ISSN 1084-7561) vol. 8 (2002) issue 1 (March 8).
- Heras, Henry. Studies in Proto-Indo-Mediterranean Culture, Bombay: Indian Historical Research Institute, 1953.
- Parpola, Asko. Deciphering the Indus script Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Parpola, Asko (2005) Study of the Indus Script. 50th ICES Tokyo Session.
- Parpola, Asko (2008) Is the Indus script indeed not a writing system?. Published in Airāvati, Felicitation volume in honour of Iravatham Mahadevan, Chennai.
- Possehl, Gregory L. (1996). Indus Age: The Writing System. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-3345-X..
- Rao, R.P.N. et al. (2009). Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus Script. Science Journal, April 2009.
- Rao, R.P.N. (2010). Probabilistic Analysis of an Ancient Undeciphered Script. IEEE Computer, vol. 43(4), 76-80, April 2010.
- Subramanian, T. S. (2006) "Significance of Mayiladuthurai find" in The Hindu, May 1, 2006.
- Wells, B. "An Introduction to Indus Writing" Independence, MO: Early Sites Research Society 1999.
- Keim, Brandon (2009) "Artificial Intelligence Cracks 4,000 Year Old Mystery" in WIRED
- Vidale, Massimo (2007) "The collapse melts down: a reply to Farmer, Sproat and Witzel", East and West, vol. 57, no. 1-4, pp. 333–366.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Indus script|
- Indus Script (ancientscripts.com)
- Indus Script (http://www.shangrilagifts.org/hp/indus.html - Comparison of Indus Valley Harappan 哈拉帕 and Ancient Chinese Jia-Gu-wen 甲骨文 "Bone Script")
- "Discovery of a century" in Tamil Nadu ("Discovery of a century" in Tamil Nadu )
- The Indus Script (From harappa.com)
- BBC - 'Earliest writing' found
- How come we can't decipher the Indus script? (from The Straight Dope)
- Iravatham Mahadevan, Towards a scientific study of the Indus Script
- Script Image;Article
- Collection of essays about the Indus script (Steve Farmer)
- WIRED.com (WIRED.com)
- "Computers Unlock More Secrets Of The Mysterious Indus Valley Script". Science Daily. August 4, 2009.